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The Scapegoat Child and the Malignant Narcissist Parent

For the child victim of family scapegoating abuse (FSA), the ‘scapegoat story’ created by one or both parents (which the entire family invariably adopts and accepts unquestioningly) can negatively impact their mental and emotional health. When a parent is a malignant narcissist, the abuse the child experiences can be extreme, resulting in complex trauma (C-PTSD) symptoms secondary to grave psycho-emotional distress. Check out my video on narcissistic families at the end of this article.

Awareness of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) has grown in popular culture, yet it is my observation that the term is often misused or misunderstood within the self-help field, including via books and forums. This is because one can be self-centered and selfish and lack empathy without clinically meeting the criteria of NPD.

You may or may not have heard the term ‘malignant narcissist‘ in association with NPD. A malignant narcissist is capable of inflicting extreme harm (with attendant suffering) upon their child, particularly if that child is in the role of ‘family scapegoat’.

What Is a Malignant Narcissist?

Although rarely credited, it was Dr. Sam Vaknin (who self-identifies as being a narcissist) who popularized the term ‘malignant narcissist’ many years ago via his free written offerings online. He eventually published a book entitled, Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, which some refer to as the ‘Bible’ in regard to understanding malignant narcissism and narcissistic abuse.

More recently, there have been attempts to determine whether malignant narcissism is a real diagnosis. For example, a 2022 paper sought to develop a scoring inventory for malignant narcissism. A 2019 paper emphasizes that malignant narcissism is a judgment based on beliefs about a person’s thoughts, rather than an actual diagnosis.

A person with malignant narcissism goes far beyond the clinical scope of narcissistic personality disorder. Specifically, they may harm others to gain attention, feed their sense of superiority, and get what they want. For this reason, a person may also have traits of antisocial personality disorder. These include:

  • disregard for or hostility toward the rights of others
  • aggression and violence
  • lack of remorse for harming others
  • a tendency to lie
  • breaking the law
  • chronic irresponsibility
  • impulsive or reckless behavior

— Source: Medical News Today

When a Scapegoating Parent Is a Malignant Narcissist

Clients entering my Psychotherapy or FSA Coaching practices will at times share horrific stories of being systematically humiliated, degraded, and devalued by one or both parents. The parent appears to delight in behaving sadistically toward their own child, but will be careful to keep the abuse private and contained within the family home.

To make matters worse, the child is made to believe that they deserve to be treated badly due to some defect on their part. Suffice it to say that the parent who is a malignant narcissist is unlikely to ever take responsibility for the damage they have done to their child / adult child’s mental and emotional health. Instead, they will take on a self-righteous stance, justifying or denying their deliberate attitude of cruelty toward their child.

For example, I once had a client in my psychotherapy practice deny that she had experienced any sort of abuse growing up. Several months later, I learned that one of her parents had ‘shunned’ her (not spoken to her) for an entire year because she came home an hour late from a date when she was seventeen years old. My client was still living at home with this parent during this year-long period of shunning! And yet, she could not recognize her parent’s shunning of her as abuse, as she felt that she had “deserved” it as she had come home late.

The scapegoated child of a malignant narcissist parent will be further distressed and confused by the tendency of the parent to present themselves entirely differently to the outside world. For example, the parent will be very charming toward others outside the home, which further discredits the experiences or reports of the abused, scapegoated child / adult child. The creation of this ‘double reality’ constitutes gaslighting, something that can also be severely damaging to the child in that they are not able to trust and validate their own perceptions and experiences.

The Consequences of Being Scapegoated by a Malignant Narcissist Parent

Chronic mistreatment by a malignant narcissist parent can bring extra misery and suffering to the scapegoated child and adult child, and the consequences to their well-being are genuinely incalcuable. For examples of the types of abuses a malignant narcissist parent can carry out, I suggest you read my article Narcissistic Parents and the Martyl Parent Ploy (co-written with a colleague who grew up with a malignant narcissist parent).

To say that the adult survivor of a scapegoating, malignant narcissist parent will face challenges in regard to their recovery would be an understatement. Trauma bonding (an emotional attachment formed by a cycle of abuse and manipulation that isn’t always life threatening) may occur with the malignant narcissist parent, causing the child / adult child to be blind to the fact of their own abuse. Unrecognized betrayal trauma and complex trauma symptoms will also develop in response to their being chronically and systemically scapegoated; they may also develop a fear of intimacy and an inability to trust others, along with experiencing difficulty establishing satisfying relationships.

Given the likelihood that the malignant narcissist parent presents a completely different face to the outside world (some may even be highly respected in their communities, working as ministers, psychologists, social workers, etc), the scapegoated child / adult child is likely to be disbelieved and labelled “emotionally ill,” “difficult,” angry or even “crazy” if they attempt to tell others about their parent’s maltreatment of them. This can result in their avoiding reaching out for help, including from Mental Health professionals.

In such situations, a generalized feeling of helplessness and despair can develop, as it can seem as if the abusive parent has “won” via their ability to deceive others by presenting publicly as a concerned and loving parent. But this need not be so.

Recovering From a Malignant Narcissist Parent

If you have a parent who presents as a malignant narcissist, it is unlikely that you will ever be able to “work things out” with them, including helping them to see how they have been mistreating or abusing you. If you choose to remain in contact with such a parent, know that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for you to recover from the harms done to you, including the resulting symptoms of complex trauma.

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You may have no choice but to face the reality that you will need to end contact with your malignant narcissist parent if you are serious about your healing. Whether you phase out of your abusive parent’s life quickly or slowly, there will come a point that you realize that you are better off without them in your life.

What this means in your specific situation (e.g., walking away from a large inheritance; having to end contact with others who are supportive of your malignant narcissist parent) is something that should be reviewed carefully, ideally with a competent professional and/or those in your life whose opinions you value and trust.

Read my article on the Narcissistic Family System to learn more about the narcissistic parent and family scapegoating abuse (FSA). Watch my video, below, as I address a YouTube subscriber’s question.


Scapegoat Leaves Narcissist Family

What Happens After Leaving a Narcissistic Family – Do They Care?


I enjoy connecting with my readers via the comment section. If you related to this article, I’d love to hear from you – What you share may help others! You might also consider sharing this article via the social media icons below.

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Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA

Rebecca C. Mandeville coined the research-supported terms 'family scapegoating abuse' (FSA) and 'family scapegoat trauma' (FST) and is a recognized thought leader in understanding the consequences of being in the family 'identified patient' or 'scapegoat' role. She also created the FSA Recovery Coaching℠ process. Her best-selling book, 'Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed', is the first book ever written on FSA. Rebecca serves as a YouTube Health Partner via her channel 'Beyond Family Scapegoating Abuse' and is also active on Instagram and Facebook.

23 comments / Add your comment below

  1. My father was a malignant narcissist and my mother was a narcissist. I was placed in the scapegoat position in the family. I was an incest victim of my father and suffered sexual abuse from him since childhood to 18 yrs of age. He played the entire family as his pawns in his game. He controlled everyone. He was called the king in our home and we all lived in fear of him and his rages. I also fear him for his sexual abuse and violence and the mind games he played. He was very dangerous. He was capable of extreme violence I always knew that he could end our lives. I witnessed him at the age of 7 throwing my baby brother over the railroad tower up into the night air about 100+ feet plus we were. He caught him twice , he was only months old at the time, he stopped breathing each time my father threw him up into the air over the side of the tower. My mother would giggle and say oh bob, and then he would do it again. I knew then and it silenced me immediately I saluted him always in grave fear. I was scapegoated in the school system as well, I was bullied by large numbers of students in all my classes in 4 schools. I was cld ugly and poor. Hated and beat up in my classes, we lived in a very violent neighborhood from age 7 to 13. I was always trying to find a safe place but could find none. I stayed in my room and tried to hide from my father, but he always came and molested and sexually abused me. My mother would be in denial and believe his lies and I was treated as the sick child, the crazy one. I dreamed of running away, but I could not for at that time they would put children in DSS and my father I feared would kill me if I ever called the police for help. No one ever helped me. The teachers allowed the abuse in the classrooms, and my grades suffered terribly. My siblings began to treat me very badly calling me ugly and stupid. I was totally alone. I use to started writing poetry age age 7 and used singing to survive to comfort myself. I thought I could escape the abuse in the school when we moved but it continued there, I did not know how to defend myself, and the bully’s could see that. I was treated as different by my family. My mother resented me for being an em path and for trying to tell the truth and to get her to face it so that we could make our lives workable. But she would just go into denial and became angry and side with him. Life was hell, absolute hell for me in that home and in those schools. I never got to utilize my talents and to learn and become the doctor I wanted to be, or the singer and artist and entertainer. I left our home at the age of 18 after i graduated high school. I lived on a couple of mile from there. I had to hide. My father tried to abduct me when I was working, I was told by the management that they wanted to give me a ride home because he was in the back of the store in his truck. He had told me I would never be able to escape he would have me forever in chains there in the basement. i know my past and I have talked about it, I just want to free myself from the scapegoat role and stop being stuck in helplessness and a vicious circle a replay of the past over and over. I am afraid I will never be able to set myself free from being with this person who I am with now. He reminds me of my father. He also raped me and he has left me to die of a cardiac arrest, he has destroyed my friendships and smear campaigned me, he has destroyed my job and isolated me and financially has control. He has the extreme need for control. He give me the silent treatment for months and rages when you try to speak to him. He cannot be reached and there is no true living and here. I use to live on my own and I loved it. Now I am fearful because of my physical problems due to the life time of abuse. cardiac, epilepsy, asthma, osteoporosis and interstitial cystitis and migraines, severe chronic pain and finances, I am not the doctor I wanted to be , as i was disabled and suffering from severe chronic pain for over 27 yrs. I have lost much of my self esteem and I believe deep within i believe that I have not the right to escape or that I have no choice. I hate living this way. Can you help me to understand what might be the the dynamics at play here. Why cant I set myself free from this. I know i fear the financial insecurity and my health problems. I have no friends or support. My sisters and brother do not communicate with me, I am still playing the scapegoat. If you can help me to understand what you feel might be the reason why I remain with this sick disturbed person, please feel free to share your input. I am tired of telling my story over and over. I want to get out of this relationship. I have read and studied about the malignant narcissist for over 8 years. I know the person I am with is one also.

  2. Dr. Rebecca (my Hebrew name 😊),
    Thank you for such an insightful article. I wept as I read it. Tears perhaps of relief?

    I’m a Soviet Jew and a refugee in the US. The narrative for their neglect/abuse was how fortunate we were. So your touching on a lack of awareness, even supporting my own abuse, makes me feel just a bit more seen. As the experience of shunning, thank you also for sharing others experience. One of my earliest memories was her not speaking to sister and me for a week, because we didn’t clean the house well enough. I was 6 and sis was 8.

    Plenty of horror stories, amIright? The one I shared with people that I know would upset her is:
    One of my chores growing up, was giving her a Brazilian wax. Cannot unsee that 🙃

    I wonder if you have any insight on any of the below?
    -generational trauma passed down via birth
    -the sexually abused children of malignant narcissists mothers
    -sibling relationships of malignant narcissists
    -immigrant experiences and potential to develop NPD

    1. Hi Rina – Thank you for your comment and for reaching out with your questions. Most can be answered by reading my book,’Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’; I do focus on multigenerational trauma and how this impacts families – I am a family systems specialist and view scapegoating through a systemic lens. The book is available internationally; links are on the home page of this website.

  3. When I realized my malignant narcissist mother was giving my children the serious short shrift in comparison to the golden child’s children, 20 years ago, I had her on the phone for hours demanding to know why. Finally she said to me, “are you happy with your family? Go be happy with your own family”. In some ways I wonder if she had some cognizance that what she was doing was wrong, but she just couldn’t help herself. Around the same time I remember sharing with her excitedly a Louise Hay book about healing your life and her reaction was hostile. Maybe she knew at some level that she wasn’t able to face her own traumas and heal them and she was happy enough to project it all on me. Now, she’s dead and apparently trying to scapegoat me and mine from the grave via her estate and the short shrift we are receiving there. I will be happy when the estate is closed. How do I quickly heal from all this so I can fully live what’s left of my life. I *think* the cycle has stopped with me or at least none of my children were scapegoated so at least there’s that.

      1. Thanks for the reply, I must have dissociated the death part of the video that the link took me to, Why EMPATHS Get SCAPEGOATED In DYSFUNCTIONAL Families, because I missed the death part; I will listen again.

        I am interested in hearing other peoples experiences about after the scapegoat parent dies and what their experiences have been with dividing up the things in the house and engaging with the siblings that your children don’t even really know, if that’s the case.

        Maybe mom gave really good advice, the best she could do for me. It’s so odd because yes I know she has to know at least part of what she does to me is absolutely on purpose and maybe even calculatedly, planning long ahead of time. But also I think there’s some behavior that’s bad and just reflexive and habitual. Despite what siblings may have ever said, about moving on starting now and almost apologizing, they just haven’t shown me any real empathy and I have to accept that they really will never change and anything they say cannot be trusted. It’s just constant trauma because of course I was always excluded and wanting to still be included with these “people” is a primal yearning that must be broken.

        I need to order your book! And a workbook! Thank you.

        1. Edits made – please check and make sure it is as you asked. You seem to have both insight and compassion in regard to what may be happening in your family. As a clinician / family systems expert who has specialized in what I ended up naming (during my research) ‘family scapegoating abuse’ (FSA), I do distinguish between DYSFUNCTIONAL versus NARCISSISTIC family scapegoating abuse. From your comments, you may relate to more dynamics in the former versus the latter. My book, ‘Rejected, Shamed, and Blamed’, also focuses more on the former than the latter. My YouTube channel also has separate playlists on the home page of my channel for these two types of family systems (of course, all narcissistic families are dysfunctional, but not all dysfunctional families are narcissistic in their systemic construction, although there may be family members with strong narcissistic traits or even full-blown NPD).

  4. Its a horrible life experience to be raised by a malignant narcissist mother, adding complications having a covert narcissist sister who is just as bad as my mother, in some instances worse. There’s a nest of them in my family and I might have been one to, if not at a young age picked up on the “ somethings not right, why is my family so off refusing to acknowledge others feelings, and boundaries. Its only gotten worse, I cannot have any relationship with them, due to constantly overstepping personal boundaries, and insane controlling tactics. I just cant take it any longer. My sister has damaged her daughter horribly over weight issues, just as my mother did with me.
    My mother demanded I take strong adult prescribed diet pills ( Fastin) when I was 9, and paid no attention I kept telling her my heart felt funny, the pills made me sick. My sister repeated this with her daughter, paid for 100’s of thousands of plastic surgery and niece still fights with daily.

    I could write a book on the cruel abuses, but what what good would it do?
    I pray for anyone born in this hideous toxic family system that you survive and thrive. Life is too short to be exposed and targeted by evil people. Cut them loose if ANY way possible and live your life free!
    God bless

  5. Hi Elizabeth,

    I was horrified to read about your ordeal. Sometimes I wonder if some people are soulless. If they just look human, but are missing something inside. I’m so sorry. I have a malignant narcissist mother, and when I read about family scapegoating it felt as if my life was being described. These people attack when we’re most vulnerable: as children. I’m convinced they’re being driven to destroy something in their target, something they themselves lack, and render their victim ‘useless’ to the world. Growing up, my ‘mother’, if she sees anyone get close to me, befriend, or show me love, would go and tell the person the most terrible lies about me, and destroy that friendship. And that’s just the one I can mention here. It’s been many years since I left home, cutting off all contact with my family for several years. I reconciled with the rest, and while I occasionally interact with her long distance, it’s few and far between. I see her every few years when it’s unavoidable. Once you’re out of their orbit, they lose their power. I recognize my own dysfunction: the low self esteem, the self sabotage. And yet I’ve accomplished a lot in my life too.

    I’m so sorry about what you went through. I’m so proud of you, because you’re really very strong. I know I’m a total stranger, but I’m cheering for you all the way! I look forward, with you, to the day every wound, mark and trauma inflicted by those evil people is healed for good. I ask myself: Who would I have been, if I’d never encountered my parents, but had good ones? That’s what I’m finding out.

  6. Why can’t I get your book…I live in UK and when I try to order it, they say not available…how do I get your book please?
    Marion

    1. Hi Marion,

      I am showing that my book is available in the UK through Amazon. Is this where you are trying to order from? Are you told it is not available AFTER you put it in your cart? On my end, all looks fine – see link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08KHS41K4 You can try calling Amazon customer service if you have an issue. My book is also available through these other sites: https://books2read.com/intro2fsa. If you still cannot get it, let me know so I can speak with my distributors about it (or Amazon).

  7. I’m so glad my malignant narcisstic and very sadistic father is dead. That was what finally made me feel truly free from his inevitable insanity and deliberate cruelty. There was no escaping the madness of his mind. My mother was just as mean to me, though in a much subtler way. My much older brother died several years ago. He was a bully to me for most of my life. Both he and my mom were considered highly physically attractive when they were young. But before he passed he said he never once saw our mother ever show any affection to me. He admitted he was embarrassed to be seen with me when I was a child. He also told me he thought I was the strongest person in our family.

    I’ve always known I grew up in the midst of liars. That knowledge made me hold on despite facing enormous abuse not only at home but also outside it. I was born with a facial disfigurement,
    which led to tremendous additional suffering. I’m sure they all felt I harmed them by my appearance. Yes, of course, while in the womb I chose to be disfigured.

    I divorced my family in my early twenties after seeing my first psychologist. She was working on her masters and called in the man supervising her studies. In one of my last sessions they told me I needed to “stay away from” my “family for the rest of my life.” Why? Because “they’re evil.”

    It’s many years later. Their advice was a godsend and has proven helpful, wise and correct ever since. I’ve struggled my whole life with serious health issues and their resulting financial hardship. I’ve survived what no one should ever endure. But, then again, haven’t we all?

    Even after all this, I thank God daily for my life despite everything. My advice to those who understand or need to understand this painful topic? There’s no reason to deal with people who reject you because life’s simply too short and you deserve so much better.

    Addendum: One correction to this post: I’m not “glad” my dad’s dead. I’ve thought about that opening line and I think that misrepresents my feelings. I’m relieved he’s gone because he can no longer inflict pain on me. I didn’t wish death on him or anyone else in my family. I was shocked to hear of his death from my aunt, but not happy about it at all.

    By the way, his last words to me by phone two weeks before he died? He called and said he tried his best to get my mom to abort me. I instantly slammed my phone down so hard it broke.

    1. One correction to my earlier post since there’s no way to edit it, I’m not “glad” my dad’s dead. I’ve thought about that opening line and I think that misrepresents my feelings. I’m relieved he’s gone because he can no longer inflict pain on me. I didn’t wish death on him or anyone else in my family. I was shocked to hear of his death from my aunt, but not happy about it at all.

      By the way, his last words to me by phone two weeks before he died? He called and said he tried his best to get my mom to abort me. I instantly slammed my phone down so hard it broke.

      1. Hi Elizabeth,

        How horrific! I am always curious to know how one survived such psycho-emotional assaults. FYI, I added this correction to your original post; I’ll delete this one here in a day or so to make sure you saw my comment here.
        – Rebecca

    2. “A survival strategy is a way of getting out of childhood alive.”
      – Frank Jones Sulloway

      Your words of wisdom, based on your challenging and painful family experiences, speak for themselves. I hope many will read your comment. Thank you, Elizabeth.

    3. My father and stepmother were both malignant narc’s or just simply complete psychopaths. but my father fits the mold, my stepmother I havent ever tried to be in contact with for many years or my mother whos a drug addict but not a narcissist, she’s ok she just has drug issues which is nothing in comparison. He physically and mentally abusive to the point of torture. I cut off the whole family except my little brother who is partially autistic but fairly normal outside of the mental health challenges hes facing as an adult from similar abuse. I won’t even tell the stories of the completel insanity we faced growing up. The impact it had was that my family was totally fubar until I hit around 28-29 when I started waking up to the fact things were broken (even though I had already caused boatlods of damage to everyone and everything around me). I just consider mysefl blessed because I was able to “awaken” from it and make things better over the years where now my life is fairly normal.

    4. Dear Elizabeth, well done! You made the right decision. God bless you. From another Elizabeth x

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